Thursday, April 8, 2010

Engl. 339: Goodfellas

One of the things that struck me the most about Martin Scorsese, both in Goodfellas and in the clips we saw on Tuesday, was the prevalence of food as part of the storytelling. In The Gangs Of New York, we saw a rich family sitting down to a lavish breakfast. When the mob broke in and the breakfast table was overturned, I admit I felt a pang for all that lovely food gone uneaten. In The Age Of Innocence, there is that marvelous long pan along the dinner table, over all sorts of dishes that I couldn't name but looked delicious. In Goodfellas, the fellas are constantly sitting down to hearty Italian meals; whether they're about to go bury a body in their trunk or they're doing a stint in prison, they have pasta and wine and fresh bread and cheese. The movie devotes quite a bit of time to eating and cooking - who can forget the bit about slicing the garlic with a razor blade to get it thin enough, or Henry having Karen smuggle him cheese in prison? There was also an overabundance of sausage, but I figured that was saying more about the masculine nature of the film.
Generally, people eating together is a sign of unity. In these instances, though, Scorsese uses the idea of a family dinner to emphasize strife and discord: in The Gangs Of New York, the breakfast table with its sumptuous food, blue china, and vases of flowers directly contrasts the growing rioting and the poverty in the outside streets; it is the first thing to be destroyed. In The Age Of Innocence, the dinner table is laden with amazing food and flowers, but the company around it, friendly though they may seem, are all backbiting and treacherous society people. Likewise, in Goodfellas the dinner scenes begin by emphasizing the familial nature of the mob, where they all share food together and even the Made Men cook for everyone, but it gains a darker tone as we realize that the family attitude is only a veneer, and that the two men eating next to each other can turn on the other in a moments' notice.
Scorsese uses food as a dramatic technique in the same way that another director might use lighting or sound. It can trick the viewer into feeling sympathy for the characters, or alert them to the dissonance in a scene.
Also, I think he really likes food.

Engl. 368: The House of Mirth

One of the primary conflicts that I noticed in The House Of Mirth was the concept of self vs. status.
It is Selden's self that Lily is attracted to; she likes his ideas and his personality, and it is only with him that she acts like herself, but his status is not exactly desirable; although he is accepted into New York society, he is not rich.
On the other hand, Rosedale's status is certainly appealing to her - his monetary status, that is, not his social status - but she cannot accept him as himself; he is small and plump and shiny, and she is disgusted by his attempts to infiltrate their exclusive "set". For her, as well, his religion and race were detractors - anti-Semetism was not unusual at the time.
Throughout the book so far, Lily's trouble with finding herself a husband - and that is her greatest concern, for the most part - lies with her inability to reconcile self with status. She tells herself that she wants - no, needs a rich husband; an effect of her upbringing and peers: gold digging is not only applauded, it is expected of her. However, although she manages to position herself to get a rich husband more than once, she finds the man himself unsuitable and sabotages it. Yet she is unwilling to consider marrying a man she loves, but who is not rich.
The lost conquests we see in the book are (1) the Italian prince, who is rich and well-placed in society but who, we can assume, is old and not particularly handsome as Lily finds his young, handsome stepson better company; (2) Herbert Melson, who had "blue eyes and hair with a wave in it" and little else to commend him (beside being rich), and Lily congratulates herself in having dodged a bullet with him as he had grown fat and boring after marriage; (3) Percy Gryce, who is very rich and very, very dull; (4) Simon Rosedale, who is very rich, very disdained by society, and (gasp!) a Jew; and finally (5) Lawrence Seldon, who is handsome, kind, a bit idealistic, and not rich.
One of the biggest selling points of romance is the idea of an "unsuitable" or generally unremarkable young woman who finds herself a charming and rich young man to fall in love with and live happily ever after with. As we know, that rarely happens, but it is what Lily is hoping for. Sadly, I doubt that this book is going to be that kind of romance, and I doubt that Seldon will suddenly come into a fortune and marry Lily. This isn't Jane Austen.
It'd be nice, though.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Eng 339: Bonnie and Clyde

The separation of cultures in Bonnie and Clyde was interesting, to say the least. You've got a story set in the 30's, told by people in the 60's, and watched by people in the 0ughts. At this point in the class, I feel as though I understand the 30's part better than the 60's, but the influence of both are here.
I sometimes think of history as a great big game of telephone. We have a certain perception of the 30's - gangsters, bank robbers, corrupt cops, destitute families and hoboes. This is the same perception that they had in the 60's, so that was in their movies. We see their movies, and that is the perception that we get of the past, and that is what goes into our movies.
After all, before this class, how many of us had seen an actual movie from the 30's, and how many of us had ideas about the 30's based on movies set in them, but made in the 60's, 70's, 80's 90's - and tinted with their own time period?
We all noticed the prevalence of 60's style in Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie's hair bump and her makeup, the cut of her dress, even the type of face she had was indicative of the 60's ideal of beauty. C.W. Moss even looked a bit like a 60's grease monkey, with his jacket and slightly too-tight jeans.
This is slightly biased for me though, because I had seen the actor before in a great movie called The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (which is hilarious and everyone should see it) where he played almost the exact same character except his nose was perpetually running and he had a bit part.
Anyway, my point, which I have taken some time getting to, is that Bonnie and Clyde is almost immediately recognizable as a 60's film - not just because of the style but because the tone of the film was completely different than in films from the 30's. In the 30's, they were in the midst of a crisis, and the movies were an escape from the desolation of the decade. In the 60's, they were in the midst of an identity crisis and the movies were an attempt to define themselves.
There was a movie made last year, Public Enemies, that was about gangsters too. Of course, I'm too close to this one to make flippant declarations about the subconscious context of the film, but I can tell you that it's not the same as 1931's Public Enemy, nor is it the same as 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. It may be about the 30's, but it tells a story about our generation. We just can't see it yet.

Eng 368: Greed

The film version of McTeague was interesting, partially in the culture gap between our class in 2010 and its intended audience in 1925. To our eyes, Trina was scary looking (both with and without makeup), the acting was overdone, and the special effects were hardly special. Of course, at the time, the effects would have been well done, and Trina looked no weirder than any other actress - the strange makeup was to help accentuate their expressions, as was the overacting. These were hardly HD video cameras they were using; they were grainy, and sometimes those actors had to ACT to get the message onto the screen.
But more remarkable was the director's attempt to follow the book as closely as possible. Even with seven hours cut out of the original footage, the film follows the story far closer than any movie made these days would.
Of course, as one of nature's book-readers, I am usually the one who likes to stickle about how the movie was "nothing like the book! They completely ruined it!" The new Beowulf? Horrifying! That they would take a bit character like Grendel's mother (she doesn't even have a name, for ctying out loud! Everyone had a name in that book!) and make her one of the driving characters simply so she can be played by a naked Angelina Jolie? Abominable! Although the dragon fight was pretty cool. And The Count of Monte Cristo? All wrong! The Last of the Mohicans? Butchered (no pun intended)!
So I can appreciate a director wanting to follow the film exactly. It's one of Hollywood's jokes that a book that is adapted to film tends to end up nothing like the author's creation - there is a reason some authors will refuse to sell their book rights to Hollywood.
I can also appreciate not having to sit through 9 hours of dialogue-less film. It's a shame that the extra footage was destroyed, of course, but thank God for editors, right? Too bad they didn't have mini-series back then. Greed would have been perfect for that.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Engl 339: A Place In The Sun

Okay, so I'm just going to go ahead and continue the debate that got started just before the end of class, regarding whether or not George should have gotten away with is.
My reaction is a clear and resounding "Hell no!" pardon my unprofessionalism.
The argument that stuck out to me the most was someone saying that "it takes two to make a baby" and that Alice was as much responsible for her "trouble" as he was, and this somehow justified him being able to leave/murder Alice.
I don't buy it.
It takes two, right? So Alice getting pregnant wasn't totally his fault, but it was at least half his fault. Those who are arguing that he should have been able to leave her to move on to Angela aren't recognizing his responsibility here. Already in the culture at the time, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy laid all of the risk and retribution on the unfortunate mother, and none on the father. A man who fathered a child with an unmarried girl could just move on and no-one would be the wiser; it could have almost no impact on him. The single mother, on the other hand, would have been fired immediately, and probably would have been unable to find work in her small town. She would have been ostracized from society until her only recourse would be to move - if she could afford it with no job and a newborn baby. Even if she moved to a place where nobody knew of her shame, her child would be there to show everything, like a scarlet A.
Most likely she would have had to lie and say she was a widow, or return to her family. Even these days we hear of girls being thrown out of the house for getting pregnant; do you think it would have gone over well in the 50's? She probably would have never been able to get married - single mothers were not desirable in those days.

George basically decided that his own desires were more important than not ruining a girl's life. Sure, she had her part in it, but she had so much more to risk. Her insistance that George marry her is frustrating, of course, but it is understandable. If George doesn't marry her, her entire future goes down the toilet. If George does marry her, well, he doesn't get the super gorgeous rich girl, but will probably live a perfectly tolerable life. Boo hoo.
What he wanted to do, even if he didn't mean to kill her at the end, was unforgivable. He doesn't get to be a karma houdini and get away scot free.

That said, I don't think he murdered her. What he did do was arrange the situation that ultimately lead to her death, unintended though it might have ultimately been. In my understanding, that's manslaughter. It shouldn't have sent him to the electric chair, but it shouldn't have sent him off to enjoy his ill-gotten pretty new wife, either.

English 368: McTeague

While I was reading this book (which was engrossing, by the way. I almost missed a class because I was reading it and lost track of the time) I started to notice something odd. When Trina and McTeague began their spiral into avarice and violence, I found I was sympathizing more with McTeague than with Trina. This baffled me, at first. True, Trina had her faults - she was greedy to the point of a mental disorder, and she continuously lost her charm as she grew more and more obsessed with money. But McTeague during that point in the book was abusive - sadistic, even, with his biting of her fingers. The part where Maria and Trina compare their respective abuses is horrifying, and yet somehow I felt almost no animosity toward McTeague.
The best explanation I can think of for this is simply the bias of Frank Norris. This influence in the book is light, almost unnoticeable, but when I realized that something in the book was making me read the situation exactly opposite of how I would normally do it, I had to look deeper.
My best guess ties back to naturalism. Perhaps, in Norris's mind, avarice is unnatural and is therefore the greater crime. In the book, there is something intensely abominable about the way Trina saves her money for the love of it, despite living in squalor, and Norris continuously reminds us of this by telling us again and again of how she was obsessed, how she lied to her husband, how very deviant her love of money is. He illustrates this with Zerkow, who is stark raving mad over gold. Although Trina identifies herself with Maria, it is really Zerkow that she resembles.
McTeague, however, seems to be driven to his sadism by his wife. Norris insinuates that it is really Trina's fault that he is like that; he shows absolutely no remorse for torturing his wife - nor does Norris indicate that he should. According to the book, it is Trina's fault that he starts drinking whiskey and it is her fault that he abuses her, because he is abusing her for withholding money.
This is, of course, as nasty a subtext as the stereotypical, moneygrubbing, murderous Shylock that Zerkow represents, but it is much more cleverly slipped into the book.
Not that I didn't like the book, though. I really enjoyed it. But I was surprised at how easily Norris's writing was able to insinuate his own bias into my perception before I could notice it.

She Died In Terrebonne

Here's a treat for those of you that like pulp fiction/noir - a nice pulpy webcomic called She Died In Terrebonne about a Japanese-American private detective named Sam Kimimura who is hired to find the missing daughter of a wealthy businessman. Here's a spoiler: she died. In Terrebonne.
It's got awesome artwork, awesome writing, and the only drawback is that it only updates once a week. Check it out, folks!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Engl. 339 - Film Noir

Gritty. Hardboiled. Hardbitten.
All great words to describe a great genre. Film noir is one of the most easily recognized of genres; when it is parodied, people know it immediately and are delighted by it. Well, I am, at least.
It's funny. I could recognize film noir before I had ever seen it, mostly because of this:
Yes, that's Calvin and Hobbes. It used to be my favorite part, when Calvin donned his imaginary trench coat and fedora and lipped his everpresent cigarette (nobody could force political correctness on Bill Watterson) and started calling girls dames and narrated everything with wry wit. The funny thing about it is that I never saw any film noir movies - not until this class.
The film noir style is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that I could see a screenshot of a man in a fedora and trench coat and a woman in high heels, a tailored dress, and rolled hair, in harsh shadows, maybe the silhouette of some venetian blinds behind them, and instantly label it as film noir. Give me a quote with a lot of witty dialogue and 40's slang, and I would know in a second what kind of movie it came from. The men were ultra-masculine, stoic, rough around the edges and knuckles, usually ready to help the dame in distress but not averse to playing rough with her either. The women are, well, dames. Venomous and ultra-feminine, dangerous but beautiful - with perfect hair, perfect makeup, and a taste for slinky dresses. It's only to be expected, in a film genre based off of pulp fiction - which was written almost exclusively by men.
It is really parodied with affection, rather than satire. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with Eddie Valiant (private eye, of course) and Jessica Rabbit (modeled after Veronica Lake), is a direct parody that wears its noir like an old suit, not mocking it but allowing it to enhance the absurdity of the toons. A favorite movie of mine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, follows the noir plotline and it even hinges on the dame's obsession with pulp fiction novels.
Think of the style of Sin City and Pulp Fiction, the stories of Basic Instinct and Memento.
As a break from reading Serious Literature, I have a fondness for reading cheap novels - the kind you find in the Sci-fi and Fantasy section of the bookstore. At the moment I'm going through a series called the Dresden Files, which are modern pulp fiction books featuring Harry Dresden, wizard (slash private eye). They're better than they sound - you could take the style of the books straight out of the chapter on film noir in Belton. Convoluted mystery plots, dry wit, thugs with brass knuckles, femmes fatales - and if they happen to be vampires, all the better, right?
The point that I'm getting at is that film noir is more than just a type of movie that was popular in the 40's and 50's. It is something that is known and loved everywhere - any place that is familiar with film will understand the silhouettes and harsh shadows, the sleek women and rough men, the backstabbing and the quick dialogue. It is just plain cool. That's all.

Engl. 368 - Pudd'nhead Wilson Part the Second.

I know, I know. I did Mark Twain last week. I can't help it! He's too good to just do once.
For this post I want to address the character of Pudd'nhead himself. Although the book itself is named after him, he really isn't in it all that often. Certainly, he's pivotal to the storyline, but for the most part the book follows the story and thought processes of Tom aka Chambers. What struck me the most about Pudd'nhead is his similarity to Samuel L. Clemens himself.
It is hardly unheard of for an author to write an exportation of themselves into the book; Stephen King does it all the time, for example. In Pudd'nhead's case, he is the embodiment of Twain's love of parapsychology and science; in by a small town driven by gossip and 'good ol' boy' politics, he is the (mostly ignored) voice of reason. He is the Free Thinker in a town full of Methodists; the joke there should be obvious. He is the only one who defies tradition and dares to be different, and because of that he is branded a fool.
Twain was branded a fool, too, in a more medieval sense. He was a joker, a humorist. He had to work twice as hard to get a serious message through, and without being heavy handed, either. When he wanted people to take him seriously, he had to write under a psuedonym - a different one than the one he was already using, that is.
The biggest hint, though, that Pudd'nhead echoed Clemens were the Mark Twain-isms at the beginning of each chapter, from Pudd'nhead's calendar. Nobody ever said that Twain didn't like being funny; he just didn't like that it was the only thing people thought he was.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Engl. 368 - Pudd'nhead Wilson

I love Mark Twain. I devoured Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when I was a kid (never once catching the racism, but understanding perfectly the unjustness) and the Prince and the Pauper, and later A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court and I attempted Innocents Abroad too soon; I should revisit it. Just last year I discovered Eve's Diary, which is hilarious and touching, and may be one of my favorites yet.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is funny, mostly because it is written be Mark Twain who must be funny, either because it is expected of him or because he can't help it. But it is not a comedy - it was the most disturbing story I've read in the class yet. I don't mean disturbing like Saw is disturbing; it doesn't make me want to puke or anything.
I mean that it is disturbing because it didn't allow me to settle down and read it. I couldn't just immerse myself in it and follow along with the tale; I was constantly being disturbed into thinking. Of course, mostly I was wondering, what does he mean by this? When Tom turns out to be so bad as a white man, is Twain saying that he doesn't fit in because of that 'one drop'? I choose to think that it is because he was atrociously spoiled, but I couldn't help wondering. Roxy's speech about Tom's being a coward because of that 'one drop' - illustrating how uneducated she is, or just making Twain's point that the 'one drop' counts? Don't worry, I don't think that Twain would be so straightforward as all that: despite what he says in James Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, Twain is not one to set something out so easily; if he has a point, he comes at it backwards, with sarcasm, and poking at it slyly. By making you wonder whether he means that Tom is bad because of his black blood, he is making you think about it.

Engl. 339 - Sullivan's Travels

It occured to me, about 3/4 of the way through the film, that I had seen Sullivan's Travels before. I had been young at the time - maybe 8 or 9 - and that I had almost forgotten the experience altogether. I remembered Veronica Lake as soon as I saw her, but she (and that hair) are iconic enough already - some might have noticed that she seems to be part of the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit - that she could have been in any of a number of films.
Back to my point: I had been sitting through most of the movie blissfully unaware that it had passed berfore my eyes before. It was funny, but not terribly. I chuckled a few times at the pratfalls, but the swimming pool gag has been used so many times since, I was really only laughing out of respect for the humor it represented, rather than the humor itself.
No, it was when Sullivan went to the chain gang that my brain gave me a little kick and said "hey! you've seen this before!" Suddenly, I remembered - oh! this is where he has to work in the swamp, and he gets put in the hot box for no reason, and then he goes and watches the cartoon in the church! 'Go Down Moses' never seemed so familiar.
What interests me is the fact that, in a movie about comedy, it was the tragic part that stuck with me. I still don't remember my childish thoughts on the comedy, but the hot box incident has been stuck in my brain since I was eight, without a movie title to tie it to. Probably it is because children seem to be so much more sensitive to the unjust - the only times I remember my parents punishing me are the times I had felt I didn't deserve it. As adults, we've been told "life ain't fair" so much that we see Sullivan being punished unfairly, and think "of course." My eight-year-old self was appalled by it.
The humor v. tragedy element might also relate to my age when I first saw it; sure, the humor part was funny, but I had seen funnier things before and I can bet I never got the witty dialogue at the beginning. But kids are morbid. When I first discovered the real version of Grimm's fairytales, I was delighted. It was so much more wonderfully gruesome than the watered-down fairytales I was used to. Likewise, I quickly forgot the humor of Sullivan's travels; I was already happy and carefree, and I didn't need humor to heal my pains. The chain gang, though, was fascinating. Like the pre-travel Sullivan, I was interested in pain and suffering because I had never known it before; I wanted to romanticize it and make it more exciting than it was, while now - although I've hardly suffered at all yet - that part of the movie simply seems miserable and sad.
But I'll still remember it better than the comedy.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

English 368: The MASC

How did I not know this place existed? I keep discovering all sorts of exciting new things about our Library. For instance, the old wing would be perfect for filming a Kubrickian horror film (it's just so quiet and echoey and desolate!) and the Dewey would give the most welladjusted person claustrophobia.
The MASC was fascinating. I never realized we had an archive of old manuscripts, much less that we have thousands of them squirreled away beneath the library! The possibilities are endless. When it comes to providing context for a paper, how could you beat newspapers from the year the book was written? Or exploring books by contemporaries, or even looking at ads and getting into the mindset of the time period.
And papers, shmapers! Just being there made me want to write a period novel. With all that research material, I could have fun making it sound like it's straight out of the 19th century, like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is an amazing book all should read.
Also, I didn't catch the name of the guy who did the presentation, but it sounded like Trevor James Bond, which I hope it is because that would be amazing.

Engl. 339 - The musical

Musicals have, as long as I've been conscious of it, considered light fare as far as movies are concerned. If a drama is a hearty steak dinner, and a comedy is an appetizer, the musical is a dessert. Something fluffy and pink.
I've been taught that in creating a story, character matters most, then plot, language, song, and spectacle, in that order. I think the challenge of musicals, and part of the reason they are occasionally disdained, is because they are, by genre, things of song and spectacle. So if they are defined by this, they must work extra hard to develop character, plot, and language lest the spectacle outweighs the story.
In my opinion, the Busby Berkeley musicals sort of fail at doing this. They are lavish with spectacle, and I'm willing to bet with The Gold Diggers of 1933 that more money went into the production of the four musical numbers than into the rest of the movie. You know, the part with the story?
It doesn't make them bad movies, necessarily, but if it were dessert, it would be cotton candy. Light and fluffy and almost no substance. The story of Gold Diggers was funny enough, but the movie concentrated more on the spectacle than on character development or motivation, and though it purported to tell a story about the ravages of the depression, it soon abandoned that for the silly farcical love story. To me, the most compelling part of the movie was the "Forgotten Man" musical number at the end, which seemed to finally recall the point of the movie, and drew us away from the giggling and $1500 dollar hats to remind us of the real issue.
Not that I dislike musicals; far from it! I love them. But of all the movies we've seen this semester, this was the weakest.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eng 339: Baby Face

Not to be confused with Babyface Nelson. Last week was gangster week.

I think one of the most interesting elements of the film was the use of Lily's wardrobe to reflect her methods. Aside from the fact that everyone wore really cute shoes back then, I noted a lot about her style that showed her state of mind as well as how she used everything she had as tools of her trade.
When she was a working girl (working for wages, that is; not a streetwalker), one of her first acts was to get a perm that was young looking and fluffy. She always wore dark dresses with white around the neck and wrists, like a Puritan, if considerably more sultry. This was to present to her male coworkers (i.e. targets) a subconscious image of chastity and innocence. She knew that image was everything, and what redblooded man would suspect such a pure young woman of ulterior motives?
Later, when she was legitimately a kept woman, she abandoned the pretense of innocence and concentrated on looking sultry and luxurious. She wore longer dresses, usually light colored to preserve the image of youth, and her hair got sleeker and her skirts longer as she got richer. Well, you've got to keep the mystery somehow.
This care with her wardrobe served to illustrate how she used every tool at her disposal to net herself her prizes; when she seduces a man from Georgia, she lets a slight twang creep into her voice. A slight touch of the hand; standing a little closer than strictly necessary; giving the target her full and direct attention; all of these work her toward her goal. Her eyes alone could be classified as weapons of mass destruction the way she used them on those men.
All she had was herself to exploit, and some really nice clothes.

Eng. 368 - Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller is, unquestionably, a story critiquing and contrasting the American and European senses of propriety in the late 19th century. My question is: which was he lambasting? Was it the Americans, who were either ineffectual or too bold and forward, unaware or uncaring of the social mores of the countries they were visiting? Or was is the musty and outdated traditions of the Europeans, who stiffly upheld traditions despite the changing age?
A daisy can symbolise youth and innocence, the freshness of a new year, as well as young romance (you know the game "he loves me, he loves me not"); but it is also a weed, a flower that can be found anywhere - common, as Winterbourne's aunt liked to put it. Likewise, Daisy is entrancing to Winterbourne; he finds her mannerisms refreshingly open and unfettered compared to the European women he is used to. He enjoys being able to speak to her openly without worrying about embarrassing her or himself. The other Americans, however, find her common and rude. Her youthful indescretion is embarrassing to them, even if she doesn't have the social grace to notice it herself.
While we can recognize that it is Daisy's stubbornness and determination to stick to her own manner of entertainment that ultimately leads to her death, Henry James does not treat her as though she is the butt of the story. Rather, it is the Americans who, in their desire to be European, snub the impetuous young girl and drive her away from their society, leading her to prefer the company of Giovanelli. Daisy is, more than anything, a foil to illustrate the folly of placing too much import on social tradition. While she is uncultured and distressingly flirtatious, she is ultimately a kind and innocent young woman. She treats her servants well - shocking in the classist European society - and thinks of her mother and brother before herself. While the direct cause of her untimely death is her foolishness in ignoring the danger of staying out late (alone with a man), indirectly it is the rich wannabe European Americans who, in rejecting her from their circle, essentially leave her to be ruined in one way or another.
As Henry James keeps stating, Daisy is innocent. This refers not only to her purity, but her sensibility. She is not knowledgeable about the world, and her mother is weak and ineffectual. Normally it should have fallen to her peers to help her navigate society, but they are so worried about trying to imitate stiff European culture that they turn on her and force her away. I think that in James, while gently mocking the youthfulness and foolishness of the Millers, is lambasting not the Europeans, neccessarily, but the Americans trying to emulate them.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Engl. 368 Duplicity as a mask

Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask is hardly what we expect from the author of Little Women. Gone are the sweet, faithful sisters, and in their place is callous, malicious, selfish Jean Muire. Louisa May Alcott admits that her heart is in the lurid stories, and we can understand why. Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth were all wonderful characters, Miss Muire is nevertheless remarkably engaging. We know that she's up to no good from day 1, but we are so fascinated by her techniques and tricks that we cannot help wanting to read further. But are her moments of reveal meant to truly give us a view into the insight of the character? Or is Jean wearing another mask, intending to hide from us, her audience, her true form? Were the letters her own true sentiments, or was she putting on a mask of indifference and bravado to impress her friend?
Not only this, but masks are by nature fragile and temporary. At what point after fateful marriage to Sir John is she forced to reveal her true self from behind the mask of the fresh 19-year-old girl? I couldn't help but think that this was the flaw in her plan to seek marriage through false identity.
Finally, I wonder if the family recieved the comeuppance that they did because of their lack of masks. Not that they should be a chamelone like Jean, but their thoughts and expressions are clear as day, good and bad.
Does this make them less sympathetic to you?

Engl. 339: Scarface (1932)

All right, let me just start by saying that Scarface was awesome, I can see why it's a classic, and Guino was my favorite character.
Now that that's out of the way, let's examine some of the thematic elements of the movie.
The use of the X in death scenes is a given, of course, but since it's already been mentioned I'll skip it.

Another thematic element that was particularly prevalent was the use of the staircase. The story is, of course, about Tony's rise to the top of the Chicago mob, and in the beginning of the film we see a lot of him standing at the bottom of staircases: the one in his house when he sends his sister up to her room with a wad of cash, and his mother follows. Not only does it portray Tony at the bottom of the stairs, before his rise through the ranks, it also has the effect of giving the mother the figurative and literal high ground as she tries to convince Cesca not to take dirty money. Later, we see him at the bottom of the stairs, flirting with Poppy. She is still higher than him and unattainable as he stands below her, looking up.
Immediately after this, Tony takes the initiative and sends Guino to kill the rival mob boss against his own boss's orders, and is visited by Poppy who must now climb the stairs to see him. Later, when he strikes his sister and she flees to her room, he is once again relegated to the low ground at the foot of the steps, as his mother tells Cesca that he hurts everybody.
After this, after he has his boss Lovo killed, he climbs the stairs once more, into Lovo's apartment, to claim what is now his. After he shoots Guino, he staggers down the stairs from Cesca's apartment.
And the final scene, of course, features him slowly descending, stair by stair, as he begs for his life, losing his pride, arrogance, and status with each step.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Engl. 368 - Spiritualism - some more points from my speech

Today, I gave a report on Spiritualism - first, thanks for being a good audience. I (like most people) hate speaking in front of people.

I mostly spoke about the concepts of Spiritualism, and the idea that we are surrounded by ghosts at all times. Many of the people attracted to this movement were Transcendentalist, but one of the leaders of the movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, actually hated the Spiritual movement, and thought it was full of tricks and chicanery.
Nevertheless, spiritualism attracted many prominent men and women, including James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

As I said, Swedenborg and Mesmer were both credited with inspiring some of the beliefs of spiritualism. However, Mesmer really had little to do with what we now call hypnotism, even though his name is where we get the word mesmerize. The honor of creating hypnotism goes to James Braid, who named it after the Greek God of sleep, Hypnos. Interestingly, he later discovered that hypnosis could be induced without sleep, and attempted to rename his procedure 'monoideism', which is not nearly as cool sounding and never stuck.

While some of the antics of the later mediums may resemble those of a street magician (levitation, knowing what was written in a closed envelope, causing furniture to move), one of their greatest detractors was Harry Houdini, who had a sort of open challenge out to claim he could debunk any one that he saw.

In the case of the Fox sisters, Maggie was the only one who confessed to fraud, in 1887. Katy, the youngest, was a very successful (though alcoholic and troubled) medium in Europe at the time, and though she never responded publicly to Maggie's outing, she sent a number of letters expressing shock that Maggie would say such things. Evidence seems to suggest that the sisters themselves were never entirely sure if what they were doing was real or a fake. Maggie retracted the confession one year later, and all of the sisters then died within five years - Leah in 1890, Katy in 1892, and Maggie in 1893.

There is still some controversy as to whether Maggie's confession was true or if she just did it for the $1500 offered her by a young newspaper editor.

So, real, or not? Decide yourselves.

Engl. 339 - White Fawn's Devotion vs. Ramona vs. Redskin

Okay, today I am comparing the three films we saw about native Americans on Tuesday and Thursday:
  • White Fawn's Devotion (heeeey! One of those words is my name!) (1910), 11 min. long, dir. by James Young Deer.
  • Ramona (1910), 17 min long, dir. by the illustrious D.W. Griffith
  • Redskin (1929), 90 min long, dir. by Victor Schertzinger
Now, all three of these films portray the native American as more than just target practice for the heroic cowboy, but their treatment of them differs wildly through the three films. Naturally, I am aware that it is hardly fair to compare a pair of 1910 films with one made in 1929, bit it is worth paying attention to the amount of maturity gained in those twenty years, not just in terms of the directing but in the plot, the acting, and the technological breakthroughs.

All three of the films are silent, but in those twenty years we see a leap and a bound in the quality of the acting. Where in White Fawn, the title character had to gesticulate and flap her jaw silently for what seemed like five minutes in order to convey this: I will die before I let him leave me. Where where Ramona's way of showing uncertainty was to hold her arms straight out and zoom around her little desert garden like she's playing airplane, Redskin is able to communicate exactly what a character feels for another in a single look. This is less because of revolutionary acting changes and more because of the growing voyeurism of the crowd. Unnaccustomed to scrutinizing a stranger's personal life, the early audience had to be led by the hand in understanding the nuances of expression. Before long, gone were the wild, sweeping guestures, the clasped hands pressed to bosoms, and in came subtlety of face and movement, allowed by viewers who had learned to eavesdrop properly on the characters.

The films also show a marked difference in portrayals of Indians. In White Fawn, the protagonist is lovely and devoted, but the rest of her tribe fit squarely into the concept of 'Indians as Villains,' many of them wearing the stereotypical many-feathered war bonnet while they are shot down by the white hero. In Ramona, the hero is slightly more fleshed out, but still somewhat bland. His main point is that he is an Indian, and that and his love for Ramona and anger at being driven out is the sum of his character. While both of these films are sympathetic to the cause of the Native American, they do little to make the viewer desire any sort of change. However, Redskin changes this by making the characters well-fleshed out and multi-faceted. Their race is no longer the only thing that defines them; they have wants and desires aside from it, and indeed it is a point of contention, as they are not even certain what race they are, a point which is interesting when you consider that both Wing Foot and Corn Blossom were played by white actors.

Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the two 1910 films agains the 1929 one is a greater sense of maturity, as during those years audiences began to want deeper meaning and better characters, and expect more from the cinema. It is a great illustration of the evolution of early film.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Engl. 368: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I must admit, I was prejudiced against Hawthorne when I first got the list of books for Eng. 368. I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and hated it, so I feared the worst. "Oh well," I told myself, "at least it's not Moby Dick." So imagine my surprise when The Blithedale Romance turned out to have... a romance in it! (I find that you often can't trust the titles of these older books - for instance, Dante's Divine Comedy wasn't even a little bit funny.)

It actually had quite the love pentagon going on, with Coverdale loving first Zenobia (who loved Hollingsworth) and then Priscilla (who also loved Hollingsworth) and Hollingsworth who probably loved Zenobia best but picked Priscilla anyway, and there was voyeurism and a mysterious seer named the Veiled Lady and a suicide and was overall much better than I had been expecting.

It is interesting in this book that nearly all of the main characters are not only flawed but vastly selfish, with the exceptions being Priscilla (who embodied the ideal of the perfect woman at the time: quiet, pretty, and submissive) Silas Foster & Family: Rustic Farmers, and Moodie, who had already used up his selfishness in the past and is now just an alcoholic. Wait, no, I take that back. I just remembered that he buys his booze by selling the silk purses that Priscilla makes, and (I'm assuming) none of the money makes it back to her - not that she would take it, because she's so selfless.

Coverdale is, is of course, the first that springs to mind; this is mostly because he is the narrator and so we get to hear all of his superficiality straight from the horse's mouth. Hollingsworth is also obvious because he is at the apex of our little love pentagon, and ultimately he chooses the girl who is richer. Not to mention his constant sense of imperious self-righteousness throughout the book.

Zenobia, though, is an interesting case. She is described as being this exotic and unusual woman, a writer and campaigner for women's rights, free of thought and idea, and overall exactly the wrong sort of woman for her century. Personally, I disliked her from the start. She starts out appearing to be this lovely, magnanimous woman (Coverdale is falling all over himself for her at this point) but even through the strongly biased narration we begin to see a hard, bitter side of her. Throughout the book, even though Coverdale tries his best to portray her as a goddess among women, she shows this sharp side, mostly directed toward poor submissive Priscilla, who is obsessed with her. It all culminates with Zenobia, out of jealousy (i.e. selfishness), selling Priscilla out to the former life that she came to Blithedale to escape. Because of this Zenobia falls out of favor with the rest of the main characters - especially Hollingsworth - and SPOILER! she kills herself. Before she does the deed, though, she laments to Coverdale that there is no place in the world for a woman like her.

I don't buy it. As far as I am concerned, her suicide is her final act of selfishness. She is an independent woman, sure. She lives her life off the beaten path, okay. But should a man reject her, well then she just has to kill herself and make him live the rest of his life haunted by the fact that he caused her death. Sure, Hollingsworth is a jerk, too, but by the end of the book he is so broken by her final act against him that I feel sympathy for him and none for poor, tormented, selfish Zenobia.

I guess my question is this: was Zenobia bitter and selfish because she had no place in society, or did she have no place in society because her bitterness and selfishness drove everyone away?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Engl. 339: Within Our Gates by Oscar Micheaux

Within Our Gates was originally filmed as a form of protest against D.W. Griffith's infamous Birth Of A Nation. Released in 1919, four years after Birth Of A Nation, the film presents a complex storyline, combatting the blatant stereotypes of Birth Of A Nation by portraying its characters as complicated, three-dimensional, intricate characters working through serious problems.
A quick synopsis: The film follows the story of a young black woman, Sylvia Landry, who is searching for a way to help her people, despite being plagued by misfortune. Pursued against her will by her step-cousin, a criminal and general bastard named Larry, she remains faithful to her fiancee, Conrad, until he is driven away by the machinations of her cousin Alma. In search of meaning, she moves south to teach at a small school for black children, but soon learns that the school is on the verge of bankruptcy, so she returns to the north to try to find funds for the failing school. While there, she meets the kindly Dr. Vivian and a rich old lady who is willing to donate money for the school. Back in the south, she is proposed to by both the owner of the school and by Larry, who has found her again. She refuses them both, as she has fallen in love with Dr. Vivian, but Larry threatens to "tell them who she really is" if she doesn't comply, so she leaves the school in the night and disappears. Later, searching for Sylvia, Dr. Vivian runs into Alma and learns her tragic backstory:
Sylvia was adopted by a poor black family called the Landrys, and was able to go to school. However, while she was back from school, her adopted father is accidentally present when their cruel landlord is murdered, and is accused of the crime. The family attempts to flee, but are caught and lynched. Sylvia was not with them when they are caught, but is soon found by the landlord's brother, who attempts to rape her. After a long fight scene, she faints, but is saved when he sees a scar on her breast and realizes that she is his daughter by a his black wife.
Dr. Vivian soon finds Sylvia and talks her out of her depression, and they are married.

One of the most interesting characters to me, yet a very minor part of the film, was (Raymond? Ramon? Rafar? I forget) Gridlestone, the brother of the murdered landlord and Sylvia's father. I don't know if there was intended to be more of a story for him or if he was merely there to move the plot along, but he is a man of contradictions. We watch as he hunts the family in the swamp, rifle in hand, and as he tries to rape Sylvia in a remarkably violent scene which takes several minutes, and is intercut with scenes of the lynching of the Landys. Then we learn (along with him) that Sylvia is actually his daughter, with a black woman who he had married, no less! And that he had paid for her schooling. This is where my confusion was. If he loved a black woman enough that he was willing to defy the social mores of the day by marrying her, why was he participating in a lynching? Why was his daughter adopted by the Landys? I would assume that his wife died, and though he was not willing to raise a half-black daughter by himself, he clearly cared enough about her to make sure she was educated. And, if he paid for her school, didn't he know the Landys? Wouldn't he realize beforehand that it was his daughter and her adopted family that they were lynching? Landy's name was all over the papers.
This character is remarkably enigmatic, but because so much is lost, I can only wish I knew his backstory. I should construct one myself.
He fell in love with a lovely black woman in his tempestuous youth and married her, defying his father's wishes and was subsequently disinherited, resulting in his wicked brother inheriting the family land. However, shortly after their first child is born, he discovers that his wife is cheating on him and kills her in a fit of rage. In the attack, he accidentally cuts his infant daughter's chest, and fraught with remorse, brings her to the local black minister. He asks that the minister find her a family and promises to pay for her education, but never wants to see her again for fear of seeing his unfaithful wife in her. For years, he dwells and seethes on the betrayal of his wife until news reaches him that his brother has been murdered by a crazed negro. And there in the doomed man's cabin, he finds a lovely young black woman and the passions of his youth are relit, but now tempered with the years of resentment, and he attacks her. But then he pulls at the front of her dress, and there on her chest is a scar...
Horrified and eaten by guilt at what he nearly did to his own daughter, he flees and hides in alcohol, now dwelling on something else while he is deep in his cups. Finally he decides that he must reconcile. He must see his child again, and tell her that he was all wrong, that everything he has thought has been a lie. So he finds her again at her cousin's house, and musters the courage to knock at the door...

Not bad, eh?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Welcome to English 339 and 368, me!

This is for the weblog portion of Engl. 339, "Hollywood's America" and Engl. 368, "The American Novel to 1900", to be updated Thursdays. Expect scintillating posts on The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Representations of Race in Early Film in just a few short days!